New Yorker coffee order

If Complexity is so bad, then why is it so prevalent? Primarily, because it is an artefact of something that people crave, especially in an open and free society…Choice.

One of the most familiar examples of the collision between Choice and Complexity is Starbucks. Starbucks have been boasting for some time that they have over 87,000 drink combinations including George Carlin’s famous “decaf grandee, half soy, half lowfat, iced vanilla, double-shot, gingerbread cappuccino, extra dry, light ice, with one Sweet-n’-Low and one NutraSweet

Microsoft faces the Complexity/Choice trade-off with its always contentious licensing practices. If there was anything reviled for Complexity, it was Microsoft’s scores of SKUs and equally numerous options for licensing each. So why did it create such a tangled rat nest of options? Because customers demanded it. The alternative was a one-size-fits-all. Small businesses charged the same as big. Customers using lots of functionality intensively charged the same as customers using a small bit of functionality infrequently. Businesses charged the same as students.

Another example of Complexity/Choice trade-off is functionality. One of Microsoft’s approaches to ‘ease of use’ is to provide several ways to do the same thing (there are no less than 12 ways to open a application) so that there would be one to suit each individual need. Actually, the multiple options do add complexity that reduces ease of use (“I thought you said the way to open a file way this other way??”). However, each of those approaches appeals to certain types of users. You might advocate stripping the 12 ways down to one, but you might not be so pleased if one of the 11 stripped out was your favourite.

It’s very much akin to the 500 television channels that now fill our programme guide. Cable and satellite companies don’t give us 500 choices because they expect us to watch or even surf 500 channels. They do so because they know that each person watches a few mainstream channels (the big broadcasters and networks with high ratings shows), but also watches a few specialty shows according to their interests – Bass Fishing Channel, Jewellery Channel, DIY Channel, NASA Channel, Peruvian (no, I did no make any of these up). There are over 50 Baseball Channels on DirectTV. You might think this is a wasteful extravagance, but it is actually central these operators’ business. If you just wanted plain old network television, you could get by with free-to-air terrestrial. It is the demand for these specialty channels that drive most people to buy premium TV services in the first place.

Choice and complexity remain a delicate balancing act in business and personal life alike.

Leaders optimise choice; Managers minimise complexity.